Émile Gaboriau.

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we shall see you come down as soon as the bell rings. I have in vain
appealed to your heart; you see I am forced to appeal to your stomach."

Whatever efforts Henrietta might make to remain impassive, the tears
would come into her eyes, - tears of shame and humiliation. Could this
idea of starving her into obedience have originated with her father? No,
he would never have thought of it! It was evidently a woman's thought,
and the result of bitter, savage hate.

Still the poor girl felt that she was caught; and her heart revolted at
the ignominy of the means, and the certainty that she would be forced
to yield. Her cruel imagination painted to her at once the exultation of
the new countess, when she, the daughter of Count Ville-Handry, would
appear in the dining-room, brought there by want, by hunger.

"Father," she begged, "send me nothing but bread and water, but spare me
that exposure."

But, if the count was repeating a lesson, he had learned it well. His
features retained their sardonic expression; and he said in an icy
tone, -

"I have told you what I desire. You have heard it, and that is enough."

He was turning to leave the room, when his daughter held him back.

"Father," she said, "listen to me."

"Well, what is it, now?"

"Yesterday you threatened to shut me up."

"Well?"

"To-day it is I who beseech you to do so. Send me to a convent. However
harsh and strict the rules may be, however sad life may be there, I will
find there some relief for my sorrow, and I will bless you with all my
heart."

He only shrugged his shoulders over and over again; then he said, -

"A good idea! And from your convent you would at once write to everybody
and everywhere, that my wife had turned you out of the house; that you
had been obliged to escape from threats and bad treatment; you would
repeat all the well-known elegies of the innocent young girl who is
persecuted by a wicked stepmother. Not so, my dear, not so!"

The breakfast-bell, which was ringing below, interrupted him.

"You hear, Henrietta," he said. "Consult your stomach; and, according to
what it tells you, come down, or stay here."

He went out, manifestly quite proud at having performed what he called
an act of paternal authority, without vouchsafing a glance at his
daughter, who had sunk back upon a chair; for she felt overcome, the
poor child! by all the agony of her pride. It was all over: she could
struggle no longer. People who would not shrink from such extreme
measures in order to overcome her might resort to the last extremities.
Whatever she could do, sooner or later she would have to succumb.

Hence - why might she not as well give way at once? She saw clearly,
that, the longer she postponed it, the sweeter would be the victory to
the countess, and the more painful would be the sacrifice to herself.
Arming herself, therefore, with all her energy, she went down into the
dining-room, where the others were already at table.

She had imagined that her appearance would be greeted by some insulting
remark. Not at all. They seemed hardly to notice her. The countess, who
had been talking, paused to say, "Good-morning, madam!" and then went on
without betraying in her voice the slightest emotion.

Henrietta had even to acknowledge that they had been considerate. Her
plate had not been put by her mother-in-law. A seat had been kept for
her between Mrs. Brian and M. Elgin. She sat down, and, while eating,
watched stealthily, and with all her powers of observation, these
strangers who were henceforth the masters of her destiny, and whom she
now saw for the first time; for yesterday she had hardly perceived them.

She was at once struck, painfully struck, with the dazzling, marvellous
beauty of Countess Sarah, although she had been shown her photograph by
her father, and ought thus to have been prepared. It was evident that
the young countess had barely taken time to put on a wrapper before
coming down to breakfast. Her complexion was more animated than usually.
She exhibited all the touching confusion of a young bride, and was
constantly more or less embarrassed.

Henrietta comprehended but too well the influence such a woman was
likely to have over an old man who had fallen in love with her. It made
her tremble. But grim Mrs. Brian appeared to her hardly less formidable.
She could read nothing in her dull, heavy eye but cold wickedness;
nothing in her lean, yellow face but an implacable will; all the
wrinkles seemed to be permanently graven in wax.

She thought, after all, the least to be feared was tall, stiff M.
Thomas Elgin. Seated by her, he had shown her discreetly some little
attentions; and, when she observed him more closely, she discovered in
his eyes something like commiseration.

"And yet," she thought, "it was against him that M. de Brevan warned me
particularly."

But breakfast was over. Henrietta rose, and having bowed, without saying
a word, was going back to her room when she met on the stairs some
of the servants, who were carrying a heavy wardrobe. Upon inquiry she
learned that, as Sir Thorn and Mrs. Brian were hereafter to live in the
palace, they were bringing up their furniture.

She shook her head sadly; but in her rooms a greater surprise was
awaiting her. Three servants were hard at work taking down her
furniture, under the direction of M. Ernest, the count's valet.

"What are you doing there?" she asked, and "Who has permitted you?"

"We are only obeying the orders of the count, your father," replied M.
Ernest. "We are getting your rooms ready for Madam Brian."

And, turning round to his colleagues, he said, -

"Go on, men! Take out that sofa; now!"

Overcome with surprise, Henrietta remained petrified where she was,
looking at the servants as they went on with their work. What? These
eager adventurers had taken possession of the palace, they invaded it,
they reigned here absolutely, and that was not enough for them! They
meant to take from her even the rooms she had occupied, she, the
daughter of their dupe, the only heiress of Count Ville-Handry! This
impudence seemed to her so monstrous, that unable to believe it, and
yielding to a sudden impulse, she went back to the dining-room, and,
addressing her father, said to him, -

"Is it really true, father, that you have ordered my furniture to be
removed?"

"Yes, I have done so, my daughter. My architect will transform your
three rooms into a large reception-room for Mrs. Brian, who had not
space enough for" -

The young countess made a gesture of displeasure.

"I cannot understand," she said, "how Aunt Brian can accept that."

"I beg your pardon," exclaimed the admirable lady, "this is done
entirely without my consent."

But the count interposed, saying, -

"Sarah, my darling, permit me to be sole judge in all the arrangements
that concern my daughter."

Count Ville-Handry's accent was so firm as he said this, that one would
have sworn the idea of dislodging Henrietta had sprung from his own
brains. He went on, -

"I never act thoughtlessly, and always take time to mature my decisions.
In this case I act from motives of the most ordinary propriety. Mrs.
Brian is no longer young; my daughter is a mere child. If one of the
two has to submit to some slight inconvenience, it is certainly my
daughter."

All of a sudden M. Elgin rose.

"I should leave," he began.

Unfortunately the rest of the phrase was lost in an indistinct murmur.

He was no doubt at that moment recalling a promise he had made. And
resolved not to interfere in the count's family affairs, and, on the
other hand, indignant at what he considered an odious abuse of power,
he left the room abruptly. His looks, his physiognomy, his gestures, all
betrayed these sentiments so clearly, that Henrietta was quite touched.

But Count Ville-Handry continued, after a moment's surprise, saying, -

"Therefore, my daughter will hereafter live in the rooms formerly
occupied by the companion of my - I mean of her mother. They are small,
but more than sufficient for her. Besides, they have this advantage,
that they can be easily overlooked from one of our own rooms, my dear
Sarah; and that is important when we have to deal with an imprudent
girl, who has so sadly abused the liberty which she enjoyed, thanks to
my blind confidence."

What should she say? What could she reply?

If she had been alone with her father, she would certainly have defended
herself; she would have tried to make him reconsider his decision; she
would have besought him; she might have gone on her knees to him.

But here, in the presence of these two women, with the mocking eye of
Countess Sarah upon her, it was impossible! Ah! she would have died a
thousand times over rather than to give these miserable adventurers the
joy and the satisfaction of a new humiliation.

"Let them crush me," she said to herself; "they shall never hear me
complain, or cry for mercy."

And when her father, who had been quietly watching her, asked, -

"Well?"

"You shall be obeyed this very night," she replied.

And by a kind of miracle of energy, she went out of the room calmly, her
head on high; without having shed a tear.

But God knew what she suffered.

To give up those little rooms in which she had spent so many happy
hours, where every thing recalled to her sweet memories, certainly that
was no small grief: it was nothing however, in comparison with that
frightful perspective of having to live under the wary eye of Countess
Sarah, under lock and key.

They would not even leave her at liberty to weep. Her intolerable
sufferings would not extort a sigh from her that the countess did not
hear on the other side of the partition, and delight in.

She was thus harassing herself, when she suddenly remembered the letter
which she had written to Daniel. If M. de Brevan was to have it that
same day, there was not a moment to lose. Already it was too late for
the mail; and she would have to send it by a commissionaire.

She rang the bell, therefore, for Clarissa, her confidante, for the
purpose of sending it to the Rue Laffitte. But, instead of Clarissa, one
of the housemaids appeared, and said, -

"Your own maid is not in the house. Mrs. Brian has sent her to Circus
Street. If I can do any thing for you" -

"No, I thank you!" replied Henrietta.

It seemed, then, that she counted for nothing any more in the house.
She was not allowed to eat in her rooms; she was turned out of her own
rooms; and the maid, long attached to her service, was taken from her.
And here she was forced to submit to such humiliations without a chance
of rebelling.

But time was passing; and every minute made it more difficult to let M.
de Brevan have her letter in time for the mail.

"Well," said Henrietta to herself, "I will carry it myself."

And although she had, perhaps, in all her life not been more than twice
alone in the street, she put on her bonnet, wrapped herself up in a
cloak, and went down swiftly.

The concierge, a large man, very proud of his richly laced livery,
was sitting before the little pavilion in which he lived, smoking, and
reading his paper.

"Open the gates!" said Henrietta.

But the man, without taking his pipe out of his mouth, without even
getting up from his seat, answered in a surly tone, -

"The count has sent me orders never to let you go out without a verbal
or written permission; so that" -

"Impudence!" exclaimed Henrietta.

And resolutely she went up to the ponderous gates of the court-yard,
stretching out her hand to pull the bolt. But the man, divining her
intention, and quicker than she, had rushed up to the gate, and, crying
out as loud as he could, he exclaimed, -

"Miss, miss! Stop! I have my orders, and I shall lose my place."

At his cries a dozen servants who were standing idly about in the
stables, the vestibule, and the inner court, came running up. Then Sir
Thorn appeared, ready to go out on horseback, and finally the count
himself.

"What do you want? What are you doing there?" he asked his daughter.

"You see, I want to go out."

"Alone?" laughed the count. Then he continued harshly, pointing at the
concierge, -

"This man would be instantly dismissed if he allowed you to leave the
house alone. Oh, you need not look at me that way! Hereafter you will
only go out when, and with whom, it pleases me. And do not hope to
escape my watchful observation. I have foreseen every thing. The little
gate to which you had a key has been nailed up. And, if ever a man
should dare to steal into the garden, the gardeners have orders to shoot
him down like a dog, whether it be the man with whom I caught you the
other day, or some one else."

Under this mean and cowardly insult Henrietta staggered; but,
immediately collecting herself, she exclaimed, -

"Great God! Am I delirious? Father, are you aware of what you are
saying?"

And, as the suppressed laughter of the servants reached her, she added
with - almost convulsive vehemence, -

"At least, say who the man was with whom I was in the garden, so
that all, all may hear his name. Tell them that it was M. Daniel
Champcey, - he whom my sainted mother had chosen for me among all, - he
whom for long years you have daily received at your house, to whom you
have solemnly promised my hand, who was my betrothed, and who would now
be my husband, if we had chosen to approve of your unfortunate marriage.
Tell them that it was M. Daniel Champcey, whom you had sent off the day
before, and whom a crime, a forgery committed by your Sarah, forced to
go to sea; for he had to be put out of the way at any _hazard_. As
long as he was in Paris, you would never have dared treat me as I am
treated."

Overcome by this unexpected violence, the count could only stammer out
a few incoherent words. Henrietta was about to go on, when she felt
herself taken by the arm, and gently but irresistibly taken up to the
house. It was Sir Thorn, who tried to save her from her own excitement.
She looked at him; a big tear was slowly rolling down the cheek of the
impassive gentleman.

Then, when he had led her as far as the staircase, and she had laid hold
of the balusters, he said, -

"Poor girl!"

And went away with rapid steps.

Yes, "poor girl" indeed!

Her resolve was giving way under all these terrible blows; and seized
with a kind of vertigo, out of breath, and almost beside herself, she
had rushed up the steps, feeling as if she still heard the abominable
accusations of her father, and the laughter of the servants.

"O God," she sobbed, "have pity on me!"

She felt in her heart that she had no hope left now but God, delivered
up as she was to pitiless adversaries, sacrificed to the implacable
hatred of a stepmother, abandoned by all, and betrayed and openly
renounced by her own father.

Hour by hour she had seen how, by an incomprehensible combination of
fatal circumstances, the infernal circle narrowed down, within which she
was wretchedly struggling, and which soon would crush her effectually.
What did they want of her? Why did they try every thing to exasperate
her to the utmost? Did they expect some catastrophe to result from her
despair?

Unfortunately, she did not examine this question carefully, too
inexperienced as she was to suspect the subtle cunning of people whose
wickedness would have astonished a criminal judge. Ah, how useful one
word from Daniel would have been to her at this crisis! But, trembling
with anguish for his betrothed, the unhappy man had not dared repeat
to her the terrible words which had escaped M. de Brevan, in his first
moment of expansion, -

"Miss Brandon leaves the dagger and the poisoned cup to fools, as too
coarse and too dangerous means to get rid of people. She has safer
means to suppress those who are in her way - means which justice never
discovers."

Lost in sombre reflections, the poor girl was forgetting the hour,
and did not notice that it had become dark already, when she heard the
dinner-bell ring. She was free not to go down; but she revolted at the
idea that the Countess Sarah might think her overcome. So she said to
herself, -

"No. She shall never know how much I suffer!"

Ringing, then, for Clarissa, who had come back, she said, -

"Come, quick, dress me!"

And in less than five minutes she had arranged her beautiful hair, and
put on one of her most becoming dresses. While changing her dress, she
noticed the rustling of paper.

"Ah!" she said to herself, "my letter to Daniel. I had forgotten it."

Was it already too late to send it to M. de Brevan? Probably it was. But
why might she not try, at least? So she gave it to Clarissa, saying, -

"You will take a cab, and take this letter immediately to M. de Brevan,
Rue Laffitte, No. 62. If he is out, you will leave it, telling the
people to be sure to give it to him as soon as he comes in. You can find
some excuse, if they should ask you why you are going out. Be discreet."

She herself went down stairs, so determined to conceal her emotion, that
she actually had a smile on her lips as she entered the dining-room.
The fever that devoured her gave to her features unwonted animation,
and to her eyes a strange brilliancy. Her beauty, ordinarily a little
impaired, shone forth once more in amazing splendor, so as to eclipse
almost that of the countess.

Even Count Ville-Handry was struck by it, and exclaimed, glancing at his
young wife, -

"Oh, oh!"

Otherwise, this was the only notice which was taken of Henrietta. After
that, no one seemed to mind her presence, except M. Elgin, whose eye
softened whenever he looked at her. But what was that to her? Affecting
a composure which she was far from possessing, she made an effort to
eat, when a servant entered, and very respectfully whispered a few words
in the ear of the countess.

"Very well," she said; "I'll be there directly."

And, without vouchsafing an explanation, she left the table, and
remained perhaps ten minutes away.

"What was it?" asked Count Ville-Handry, with an accent of tenderest
interest, when his young wife reappeared.

"Nothing, my dear," she replied, as she took her seat again, - "nothing,
some orders to give."

Still Henrietta thought she noticed under this apparent indifference of
her step-mother an expression of cruel satisfaction. More than that, she
fancied she saw the countess and Mrs. Brian rapidly exchange looks, one
saying, "Well," and the other answering, "All right."

The poor girl, prejudiced as she was, felt as if she had been stabbed
once more to the heart.

"These wretches," she thought, "have prepared another insult for me."

This suspicion took so powerfully hold of her, that when dinner was
over, instead of returning to her rooms, she followed her father and his
new "friends" into the sitting-room. Count Ville-Handry spoke of Mrs.
Brian and M. Elgin always as "the family."

They did not long remain alone. The count and his young wife had
probably let it be known that they would be at home that evening; and
soon a number of visitors came in, some of them old friends of the
family, but the great majority intimates from Circus Street. Henrietta
was too busy watching her stepmother to notice how eagerly she herself
was examined, what glances they cast at her, and how careful the married
ladies, as well as the young girls, were to leave her alone. It required
a brutal scene to open her mind to the truth, and to bring her thoughts
back to the horrible reality of her situation. That scene came but too
soon.

As the visitors increased, the conversation had ceased to be general,
and groups had formed; so that two ladies came to sit down close by
Henrietta. They were apparently friends of the young countess, for she
did not know them, and one of them had a strong foreign accent. They
were talking. Instinctively Henrietta listened.

"Why did you not bring your daughter?" asked one of them.

"How could I?" replied the other. "I would not bring her here for the
world. Don't you know what kind of a woman the count's daughter is? It
is incredible, and almost too scandalous. On the day of her father's
marriage she ran away with somebody, by the aid of a servant, who has
since been dismissed; and they had to get the police to help them bring
her back. If it had not been for our dear Sarah, who is goodness itself,
they would have sent her to a house of correction."

A stifled cry interrupted them. They looked round. Henrietta had
suddenly been taken ill, and had fallen to the ground. Instantly, and
with one impulse, everybody was up. But the honorable M. Elgin had been
ahead of them all, and had rushed up with such surprising promptness at
the very moment when the accident happened, that it almost looked as if
he had had a presentiment, and was watching for the precise time when
his assistance would be needed.

Raising Henrietta with a powerful arm, he laid her on a sofa, not
forgetting to slip a cushion under her head. Immediately the countess
and the other ladies crowded around the fainting girl, rubbing the palms
of her hands, moistening her temples with aromatic vinegar and cologne,
and holding bottles of salts persistently to her nostrils.

Still all efforts to bring her to remained sterile; and this was so
extraordinary, that even Count Ville-Handry began to be moved, although
at first he had been heard to exclaim, -

"Pshaw! Leave her alone. It is nothing."

The mad passion of senile love had not yet entirely extinguished in him
the instincts of a father; and anxiety rekindled the affection he had
formerly felt for his child. He rushed, therefore, to the vestibule,
calling out to the servants who were there on duty, -

"Quick! Let some one run for the doctor; never mind which, - the
nearest!"

This acted as a signal for the guests to scatter at once. Finding
that this fainting-fit lasted too long, and fearing perhaps a fatal
termination, a painful scene, and tears, they slyly slipped out, one by
one, and escaped.

In this way the countess, Mrs. Brian, M. Elgin, and the unhappy father
found themselves soon once more alone with poor Henrietta, who was still
unconscious.

"We ought not to leave her here," said Countess Sarah; "she will be
better in her bed."

"Yes, that is true, you are right!" replied the count. "I shall have her
carried to her room."

And he was stretching out his hand to pull the bell, when Sir Thorn
stopped him, saying in a voice of deep emotion, -

"Never mind, count. I'll carry her myself."

And, without waiting for an answer, he took her up like a feather, and
carried her to her room, followed by Count Ville-Handry, and his young
wife. He could, of course, not remain in Henrietta's room; but it looked
as if he could not tear himself away. For some time the servants, quite
amazed, saw him walk up and down the passage with feverish steps,
and, in spite of his usual impassiveness, giving all the signs of
extraordinary excitement. Every ten minutes he paused in his walk to ask
at the door, with a voice full of anxiety, -

"Well?"

"She is still in the same condition," was the answer.

In the meantime two physicians had arrived, but without obtaining any
better results than the countess and her friends. They had exhausted
all the usual remedies for such cases, and began, evidently, to be not
a little surprised at the persistency of the symptoms. Nor could Count
Ville-Handry suppress his growing anxiety as he saw them consulting in
the recess of one of the windows, discussing more energetic means to
be employed. At last, toward midnight, Sir Thorn saw the young countess
come out of Henrietta's room.

"How is she?" he cried out.

Then the countess said, speaking very loud, so as to be heard by the
servants, -

"She is coming to; and that is why I am leaving her. She dislikes me so
terribly, that poor unhappy child, that I fear my presence might do her
harm."

Henrietta had indeed recovered her consciousness. First had come a
shiver running over her whole body; then she had tried painfully and
repeatedly to raise herself on her pillows, looking around, -

Evidently she did not remember what had happened, and mechanically
passed her hand to and fro over her brow, as if to brush away the dark
veil that was hanging over her mind, looking with haggard eyes at the
doctors, at her father, and at her confidante, Clarissa, who knelt by
her bedside, weeping.

At last, when, all of a sudden, the horrid reality broke upon her mind,
she threw herself back, and cried out, -

"O God!"

But she was saved; and the doctors soon withdrew, declaring that
there was nothing to apprehend now, provided their prescriptions were



Online LibraryÉmile GaboriauThe Clique of Gold → online text (page 16 of 39)